Archive for RXbirdwalk

On top of the Weald

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 14, 2018 by cliffdean

Starting out from the peak of a great sandstone dome, we look out across a forest panorama to the line of the downs beyond. Skylarks & Yellowhammers are singing while overhead a string of Herring Gulls makes its way north – maybe just as far as Bewl Water but perhaps to the Medway or Thames.

Plant photos by Martyn Comley, bird & insects by Stuart Barnes

Scanning the wooded ridges for landmarks, we pick out communications masts, towers, spires true and false, an obelisk, an observatory…the temple is hidden down in the park landscaped for “Mad” Jack Fuller who himself resides within a pyramid in the churchyard.

However, we’re soon dropping down a scrubby lane where Whitethroats sing from the bracken, up to the wood edge where there’s more song from Willow Warbler & Chiffchaff into pine plantations, comparatively silent until a crossroads admits sunlight and a sudden chorus of Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Siskin & GS Woodpecker

Over deeply incised streams and up, footfalls muffled by needles, into dark, dark, pine-scented stands of tall conifers from which trickle down the thin song of Firecrests. Struggling up towards any light are former inhabitants of the wood: Sweet Chesnuts. Neither they nor the cedars are native.

In a dramatic transition from dark, parallel trunks to greenery and sculpturesque limbs we enter a grove of massive sprwling beeches at the lip of a deep ghyll.

Perched in the sunlight is a scarce bird that such a short time ago was commonplace – a Spotted Flycatcher, and further on past sunny banks where Garden Warblers burble there’s another, very much at home around the sheds and phone lines of Glazier’s Forge.

Around the forge, the shrill song of a Grey Wagtail can be heard but it’s not till our return that it shows itself, brilliant yellow beneath and with metallic green Beautiful Demoiselles fluttering behind it.

Feeling the need to refer to the Historical Atlas of Sussex

A diversion into a field of cattle-poached clay baked hard and ankle-turning by the warm sunshine, our destination a small pond, its margins cloudy from the passage of a few dogs (them & their 4 owners, a horse and its rider were the only people we met in 4 hours). The surface is alive with with brightly coloured, busily copulating dragonflies.

Azure damselflies.

Large Red Damselfly

Ovipositing Emperor Dragonfly and (no pictures) Broad-bodied Chasers

It’s very quiet. Woods all around. No-one about. There’s a Buzzard overhead and then, like Zebedee in the Magic Roundabout reminding us it’s time to go, the midday sky-whale of the incoming Dubai flight.


South-east still “Crowded”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 6, 2018 by cliffdean

Almost as soon as we left the car park, we could hear Ravens, and quickly spotted a group of 5 – presumably a pair + 3 young, picking at a rabbit carcass out on the otherwise featureless grassland of Mountfield Court. The other broods I’ve seen this spring have been of 2 youngsters, but I found that I didn’t actually know if that was the limit. It isn’t: BTO Birdfacts tells me that 4-6 eggs are laid, leaving me to wonder whether perhaps these local broods are limited because they are still at the outward edge of expansion…ie cautious? Does that make sense?

Their repartee could be heard over a wide area as we walked up the lane, past the beautiful gardens which are sometimes open to the public (the day after, it turns out). A lot of birds singing, including Goldcrest (visible) and Treecreeper (not) from the Red Oaks and – I didn’t recognise them in winter – Tulip Trees, now in flower wherever the sunlight struck them.

We aimed for the avenue between the Court and John’s Cross primarily to appreciate the extraordinary old Sweet Chestnuts (see my earlier post) dating from the 18th century. Venerable, battered, rotted, split and full of holes occupied at this time by dozens of noisy, nesting Jackdaws which dive back and forth through the foliage to their raucous begging young. The avenue resembled a street of tenements, like the splendid yet crumbling palazzi in Palermo, now multiply occupied with rowdy families, washing hanging over faded facades.

As usual, there was no-one around, apart from sheep-daubers (the same, I’m sure, we encountered at Brightling, who selflessly give the surrounding countryside the benefit of their truck radio.

I had twice postponed this walk since it had been so very, very wet but I can report with pleasure that the route is now fry and comfortably walkable. We saw 35 species, which is what you’d expect for a Wealden location lacking large bodies of water, including a family party of Marsh Tits.

Some of the tombstones in Mountfield churchyard looked as if paint had been poured over them. Keith Palmer tells me: “There are two realistic possibilities of white lichens that forms extensive patches on tombstones. One is Aspicilia calcarea and the other Haematomma ochroleucum (The blood-red referred to in the name only applies to the blood-red fruiting bodies which are rare at least in the south of England).

Steamy in Beckley

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 29, 2018 by cliffdean

On Saturday evening there was an extraordinary electric storm with constant rumbling and flickering, lightning wriggling among the clouds yest never a strike or detonation. It reminded me of accounts from the First World war, when coastal towns could hear the barrages from the Front. The absence of loud thunderclaps allowed me to go to sleep before the rain started, but when I arrived in Beckley Woods the next morning it was plain there had been a lot of it

Mist was hanging in the air, the trees were dripping and a lively flow rushed down gutters and streams.

This walk was a repeat of a circular route we’d followed in the winter, to notice the contrasts, but once the group had arrived, we set off in the opposite direction in order to seek some interesting species I’d located shortly beforehand. First was a singing Firecrest – one of 3 – which was close to a Goldcrest so we could hear the difference. Although the treetop Siskins had fallen quiet, we found a Garden Warbler burbling on the edge of a clearing with comparison again provided by a nearby Blackcap. A little further on, we came upon a Raven’s nest in a pylon, the 2 fledglings perched high on top.

Speckled Yellow

Now that the leaves are out, it takes a lot of patience to get a look at some birds. Whereas Marsh Tits will come out to see you off their territories, we heard a Treecreeper singing very close to us but just could not see it. We heard 4 more Garden Warblers, lots of Blackcaps, a Willow Warbler and a Whitethroat along the way, none of them visible. So it only remains to learn the songs, which is pretty difficult when you are confronted with several at once. Thank goodness for Entry-Level Chiffchaffs. 

’87 survivor

This is the time of year when you can easily locate GS Woodpeckers’ nests, owing to the noisy begging of their nestlings, and in fact we found two nests within 100 of one another.

Alder Buckthorn

Guelder Rose is Ukraine’s national plant, its vivid scarlet berries a frequent sight and symbol. These formed the hedge around an old wooden church I visited last year.

There was a lot of other interest, for instance two less common shrubs Guelder Rose & Alder Buckthorn, both perhaps introduced into Flatropers Wood by the SWT for their wildlife value, the latter perhaps an older planting for the manufacture of gunpowder  – more certainly the case around Powdermill Reservoir.

Flatropers hosts some mighty Wood Ant mounds. Braving trouser-invasion, I tried out this trick with a late Bluebell which the ants turn pink by spraying it with formic acid. Strangely, there seem to be no Wood Ants at all in the nearby and apparently similar Brede High Woods.

Photo from British Dragonflies

The night’s storm had left deep puddles in trackside ruts, now patrolled by dragonflies. We had fantastic views of courtship, mating and ovipositing by a pair of Broad-bodied Chasers.

In the open areas of Beckley Woods, the sunshine was now strong and humidity high, making us glad to get back to our vehicles.

Late Arrivals

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 24, 2018 by cliffdean

The first one was me. Having advised participants on last Saturday’s Combe Valley RXbirdwalk to bring secateurs I was, at the last minute, unable to lay my hands on any in our own house. They’re the kind of thing that are always lying around until you need them. And then I’d got less than a mile down the road when I realised I’d left my phone on charge in the kitchen… I am normally well organised. This is not the Real Me you are seeing.

Also late, and much more worrying, have been Swifts this year. So much so that people were posting anxious messages, anxious that following a period of inexorable decline, The Year With No Swifts might suddenly, and finally, arrived. You read the frightening articles about mass extinctions and tell yourself it can’t really be happening but in the background lurks a science-fiction headline: The End Of Swifts/Turtle Doves/Spotted Flycatchers – so many to choose from.

But the previous day, over the Sussex Highlands at Brightling we had seen a steady trickle passing north a fortnight late and now they were whizzing low past us, finding plenty to eat above the green wetlands. Not swarms, but better than nothing which, a few days previously, had seemed a desperate possibility.

Another sign of the season’s turn, if more punctual, for another declining bird, was the harsh sound of brown young Starlings, just out of the nest and noisily begging for soggy black invertebrates which their dutiful parents ferried back from the fields. They won’t hang around; in a few days they’ll have moved out to feed in packs, leaving hectic nest-sites silent for another year.

Since the clear night had left a heavy dew, we took the route along the old railway line, through a green tunnel of overhanging trees echoing with birdsong. End-to-end Robins & Wrens with matched-up Chiffchaffs & Blackcaps.

Out in the valley a Cuckoo was calling, Lapwings displaying and we listened in to Reed Buntings, Whitethroats, Sedge Warblers and eventually, as we moved from scrub to phragmites, Reed Warblers. A single Lesser Whitethroat sang invisibly from bushes just east of Acton’s bridge.

As we followed the river, 2 migrant Common Sandpipers fluttered along in front of us.

The path round beneath the stub of the old viaduct looks set to be lost to encroaching brambles. In spite of the best efforts of those who wielded secateurs, it needs more forthright management to be kept clear. However, it’s not a public footpath and it’s not clear who owns the land so how will that happen?

While snipping, however, we were accompanied by the fluttering of dozens of Beautiful Demoiselles, the sparkling iridescence of their wings at rest like intricate Tiffany glassware. Just one Yellowhammer remained in this area which once held several pairs before the road wiped out their habitat. Whether they have left the area or merely dispersed is not clear.





Common Sands



Rooks 0 : Ravens 4

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 14, 2018 by cliffdean

Sunday; Upon arrival at the wrought iron gate to Ashburnham Place, we were surprised to find it closed, but although this was unexpected and inconvenient it had a good side since it forced us to pause for a few minutes instead of driving straight on down the estate road. And as we stood there, I heard a Firecrest singing, apparently from Holm Oaks inside. We later heard another – also in Holm Oak – north of the house but there was no sound of the bird which in 2016 sang near the bridge.

Along the farm track we found Whitethroats & Linnets and a Dunnock parent doing its best to distract us from its tiny fluffy youngster in the middle of the path, but none of the Skylarks & Yellowhammers which used to be there.

Our attention was however soon distracted by Raven calls, which we traced to a pair of adults converging with bulging crops upon two well-grown young croaking from the top of a tall pine. Although this was something new for me, the Grounds Team informs me that they also bred here last year. But – that strip of woodland used to house a rookery of which there was now no sign. Where had the Rooks moved to  – and why? Could they have been displaced by just one pair of Ravens?

No sooner had this change become manifest when a pair of Hobbies glided in to sit in an adjacent tall Ash in the company of a couple of Woodpigeons.

Although several expected birds were missing (Nuthatch? Treecreeper??), we still ended up seeing/hearing 47 species,which is pretty good for a Wealden site where you might typically find 35. What makes the difference is water, and the lakes held a few Coot, Moorhen , Mallard, Great Crested Grebe, Mute Swan, Canada & Greylag Geese. The rim of reeds also holds a small population of Reed Warblers. Just the previous evening I’d happened upon a radio programme commending

so I was inevitably reminded of “Le Rousserolle Effarvatte” which seeks to conjure up the soundscape of La Sologne (a more detailed description appears on the video below).

More information can be found about Ashburnham Place by clicking on the tag at the foot of this page.

Why, oh why?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 30, 2018 by cliffdean

This weather is just stupid. Something should be done. Look out for me on the Facebook “Angry People In Local Newspapers” page, grimly pointing at rain or with arms tightly folded across my chest, scowling at wind.

For yesterday’s RXbirdwalk which, as Calendar Enthusiasts among you will know, was almost in May, I wore lined trousers, a thermal base layer and thin fleeces under a ski jacket. And gloves, which were a bit thin. And a hat. I was comfortably warm – though I’m not sure about the others – and did not overheat even during brisk walks across the windswept open pastures near Castle Water.

In the fierce NE wind, the little birds kept their heads down and although plenty of them were singing it was a challenge to get a look apart from a few Common Whitethroats which delivered a bit of song while clinging onto exposed twigs and Sedge Warblers which ventured from their lairs at the hearts of skeletal Elders…..(in view of the local demographic I should clarify that I’m talking trees).

The wind, cold and gloom were however good for pinning down aerial feeders close to the surface of the lakes, where hundreds of Swallows, with smaller numbers of House & Sand Martins, Swifts and Common Terns swirled about. Giving directions to point out the scarcer Sand Martins was difficult: “It’s going left, left, past the gorse..” Which gorse?” “The gorse on the – oh yes, I see, but anyway it’s gone back right, right, under the fence, now back left, right…over the Tufted Ducks” etc. Moving at a more helpful speed in the back ground were a m Marsh Harrier and a couple of Buzzards.

Our hopes for a bit of respite in the cosy hide were frustrated by the loose door catch: a westerly wind would blow it shut but as soon as we opened the slots it flew open, admitting a forceful current of cold air. It was warmer outside, in the lee of the bushes where a steadfastly invisible Lesser Whitethroat was rattling.

I’ve done three walks in the Castle Water area this week, two in the Castle itself, and seen different birds on each occasion (obviously with a majority overlap). On account of the cold, I wasn’t keeping a list on this occasion but would have said it was pretty lean as far as variety went, so I was very surprised when the species total came out at 72. There are, after all, always a lot of common species along this stretch, and there were a few other things you can’t see everywhere, including Egyptian Geese (but watch this space…), great views of a Cuckoo, a Raven, lots of Med Gulls and, interestingly a pair of Common Gulls.

We had already heard Whimbrel passing through and seen a group of seven drop in to rough grassland at Winchelsea Beach but just as we ended the walk at Dogs Hill Road, we spotted a line of flying birds hugging the shore of the otherwise deserted grey sea: about 20 Bar-tailed Godwits heading rapidly towards no doubt better weather in the Arctic. As they passed, they tipped to show their tundra-red bellies, apart from one still in silvery winter plumage. Fired by migratory zeal, these were an inshore fragment of a larger movement, with 828 passing Dungeness during th

Dengemarsh circular

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 16, 2018 by cliffdean

This was the first time we had walked the whole way round from Lydd, a 4-mile circular route with hardly any repetition or deviation but quite a few hesitations in the middle part through the RSPB reserve.

The first and last stretches of the walk, down Dengemarsh Road and back up a broad farm track respectively, have fewer birds and so give people time to chat, get to know each other and catch up with news. And, on this occasion, give time for the thick, bird-enveloping mist to disperse. Time too to speculate on the purpose of the traffic, remarkably heavy for a narrow, rough road which leads only to the sea, and composed of a surprising number of very expensive-looking vehicles. Can they all be sea anglers? If not, what?

By the time we arrived at Springfield Bridge, visibility was improving: we were able to see Linnets & Stock Doves in the birdfood strip, wildfowl on the lake and the first of very many pairs of Reed Buntings – the lakes’ marginal vegetation clearly offering them exactly the right nesting habitat. Listening in to bird calls is always an important part of RXbirdwalks and as we paid attention to the buntings’ contact notes and song, we began to hear the atmospheric marsh sounds of displaying Lapwings & Redshanks.

A bit further on, we came across the rapid rasping chatter of our first Sedge Warbler and spent quite a bit of time watching its fluttering song-flight and trying to distinguish bits of mimicry. Further on, a Reed Warbler was singing from lakeside reeds but rather too faintly to be of much use in comparison, but then two newly-arrived Lesser Whitethroats could be heard rattling in the taller willows, one of them giving good views.

With the sun now shining, Linnets & Dunnocks singing from the flowering gorse, we spent some time on the viewpoint, enjoying its broad panorama of the marsh and hoping for the sound of a Bittern (it kept quiet). As the air warmed up, a column of gulls and a couple of Buzzards spiralled in a thermal at the top of which were 3 Sparrowhawks – local breeding rivals or migrants?

The walk back, which attracts few bird-watchers, turned up a couple of Bearded Tits, fantastic close views of a hunting male Marsh Harrier and finally a glimpse of a Great Egret quietly fishing on the edge of a nearby gravel pit.